For district leaders across the country, decision-making has never been more important. As administrators continue through their first “normal” year since the pandemic, now is the perfect time to take a step back and reflect on how their district and even the entire nation are delivering education. And for Florida’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year, he believes there’s a standard of excellence to be modeled in what is known as the happiest country in the world: Finland.
For more than 40 years, the Future of Education Technology® Conference has equipped education leaders with knowledge of the newest state-of-the-art technologies and best practices through the voices of those on the front lines of innovation. With more than 700 sessions planned, the January 2023 conference in New Orleans will truly inspire and motivate those whose goal is to create a school environment that models success.
One presentation district leaders should certainly mark on their calendars will be given by Rick Surrency, superintendent of Putnam County Schools in Florida, who was recently recognized as the state’s superintendent of the year for 2023. At the conference, he will share his experience visiting schools across Finland, which he says dramatically changed his outlook on America’s education system. “I just think we need to take a second look at how we do education in the United States, and I think Finland gives us a good model to look at and take some lessons from,” he says.
“I went to Finland in May of 2022. I was supposed to go in March of 2020, and of course, you know what happened then. But I had the opportunity to go to Finland and tour their schools. And it was probably the most impactful journey of my life. It was the first time I’d been out of the United States. But I went over there with a team as part of the Fulbright Foundation. And we visited schools in Helsinki, and then we flew up to a place called Oulu where the teaching university is up in the northern part of Finland. But there were some big takeaways from that that I will share.”
During his visit, he says he realized we’ve got to change our perspective and uplift teachers in a way that gives them the respect they deserve.
“And I always share that we can’t just do it like the Finnish are doing, because they have some of the highest test scores in the entire world,” he explains. “Their kids have shown tremendous proficiency in reading, math and science. But what I want to do, and my whole purpose of this presentation, is to actually look at what we are doing in the United States through the eyes of the Finnish education system. And the number-one takeaway is we have got to show respect for our teachers. Over there, teachers are revered. They have a high degree of training. They’re required to have a master’s degree. Their teaching universities actually accept 10% of their applicants. I talked to a principal who had 150 applicants for one job. So it’s a completely different scenario over there.”
According to Surrency, the solution is clear—and that is to simply let teachers do their job. And most importantly, we should put more faith in our teachers’ ability to inform parents and administrators about the academic and emotional standing of their students, because they’re the ones in the classroom with them each day, not a standardized test.
“They have no standardized tests,” he says. “And when you ask someone how a student is doing—are they proficient, are they improving, or whatever—you ask the teacher. The teacher will tell you. It’s almost like a doctor giving you a diagnosis. And that’s the kind of respect they have for them. They don’t do observations or evaluations, because when they get in that classroom they know they are prepared. And of course, they do some perception data on the teachers if there’s an issue. But I was really taken aback by just how much they respect their teachers and the whole culture and atmosphere of their schools are just so conducive to learning.”
There are some fundamental differences regarding how students are treated in an academic setting, according to Surrency, which he also believes can mutually benefit both the teacher and the student.
“They really believe in free play,” he says regarding Finland’s elementary schools. “Every hour they go outside for 15 minutes and play. So play is really big. The big thing in high school is they take one exam once they leave high school, called the matriculation exam. And that determines whether they’re going to go into college or a career. So it’s just the fundamental differences that I will talk about and I think it really makes us take another look, especially after the pandemic. We have so many of these mental challenges that I think we’re imposing on ourselves. These standardized tests create so much stress for our kids. And sometimes I think it might be an insult to our teachers. Like, ‘We don’t believe what you tell us about a kid. We have to have some other kind of measure of accountability. And we’ve gotten to the point where we’re literally closing schools down if they don’t reach a certain plateau on student achievement.'”